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Violin Concerto No. 2

About the Work

Béla Bartók
Quick Look Composer: Béla Bartók
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Midori, violin, performs Bartók Oct. 11 - 13, 2007
© Richard Freed
Untitled Document            

Bartók composed this concerto in 1937 and 1938 for the violinist Zoltán Székely, who introduced it in Amsterdam on April 23 of the following year, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengleberg. Yehudi Menuhin was the soloist in the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, with Hans Kindler conducting, at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore on January 18, 1944, and at Constitution Hall in Washington the following day; in the most recent ones, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on February 22-24, 2001, the soloist was Akiko Suwanai and the conductor was Andreas Delfs.            

In addition to the solo violin, the score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 side drums, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, celesta, harp, and strings. Duration, 38 minutes.                         __________________________________________________            

Zoltán Székely, the violinist for whom Bartók composed this work, was the longtime leader of the Hungarian String Quartet; he was also an old friend for whom Bartók had composed the second of his two rhapsodies for violin and with whom he sometimes collaborated as pianist in performances of chamber music. When Székely asked him for a concerto in 1937, Bartók proposed a long work in the form of a theme and variations instead of a conventional three-movement concerto. Székely expressed a strong preference for the traditional concerto format, though, and Bartók acceded to his wishes; it was only after the premiere had taken place that the composer pointed out that he had succeeded in satisfying his own wishes as well, by writing much of the work in variation form of one sort or another.            

If this came as a surprise to the soloist himself, the listener may surely be excused for not being aware of it. The variation factor is not apparent in the first movement, which opens in a manner suggesting the improvisatory character of Hungarian folk music. The lower strings create a strumming effect in pizzicati over chords from the harp, and the soloist enters forthrightly with the principal theme, which becomes the subject of an extended discourse. The second theme is a highly chromatic one and somewhat skittish, in contrast with the straightforward, ballad-like structure of the first, but both fit comfortably enough into the deceptively rhapsodic-sounding whole.            

In introducing this second theme Bartók appears to have adopted a modification of Schoenberg's twelve-tone principle, without, however, presenting his twelve notes “serially" or abandoning tonality. A near-violent declamation in the orchestra follows this quasi-dodecaphonic episode, recalling the way Beethoven reviewed and dismissed themes from earlier movements in the introduction to the choral finale of his Ninth Symphony. Before the movement ends there is an extended cadenza, the first part of which is with orchestral accompaniment.            

The slow movement, a stunning example of Bartók's characteristic “night music," is clearly in variation form: a set of six contrasting variations on a theme of tender simplicity. Again the harp plays a part in evoking the Hungarian flavor of the music (providing, one might say, an idealized impression of a cimbalom), and the timpani as well as the double basses pizzicati are used with striking effectiveness to provide both color and rhythmic emphasis.            

It is in the final movement that Bartók's use of the variation principle is most subtle and imaginative. The entire finale may be described as a variation on the first movement, dissecting and reassembling thematic materials introduced there (specifically including the twelve-tone episode), reworking them in new rhythms and new colors. The end brings with it a stunning and satisfying impression of summing-up.            

Bartók originally ended the Concerto with an extended passage for the orchestra alone. When Székely saw this he urged him to reconsider and “let the work end like a concerto, not a symphony." Bartók conceded that Székely's judgment was valid in terms of the precedents provided in the great concertos of the past, and he rewrote the ending accordingly. In recent years some performers of the Violin Concerto have taken up Bartók's original ending, feeling that in so doing they were respecting the composer's original wishes. While both endings are included in the published score, Bartók had enormous confidence in and respect for Székely, and there is no record of his ever having expressed regret over giving the violinist what he wanted. The revised ending remains the “standard" one, simply regarded as sound advice happily accepted.            

It has to be noted that Bartók himself did not assign this concerto a number. Some thirty years before he composed it he wrote a shorter concerto for the young violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom he was in love at the time, but almost as soon as he had set it down on paper he decided not to present it to the public, and he reassigned the first of its two movements (retaining the solo part) as the first of his Two Portraits. It was not until 1958, following Stefi Geyer's death (and thirteen years after Bartók's own death), that the early concerto was given its first performance, and it was then that both concertos were assigned numbers in accordance with their chronology.